Many people have never heard of Libby, Montana down here on the coast of California. It’s a small town with less than 3,000 people, a long way’s away and a lot closer to Canada than much of anything else. But when you Google Libby, one of the results is a page from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That can’t be a good thing.
And it is not. Libby is home to the Zonolite mine, which contained vermiculite. And it contained something else. Asbestos. The vermiculite was contaminated with naturally occurring asbestos. In 1963, W.R. Grace purchased the mine and continued to extract the vermiculite, during which time, it supplied 80 of the world’s vermiculite, which was used in various products, including insulation and garden soil.
The company knew the material was contaminated with asbestos, but they never warned anyone and they kept on mining until 1990. Dust from the mining operations blanketed the town for decades.
And in 1999, the EPA began a Superfund cleanup operation at Libby. It is estimated that 400 have died from an asbestos-related illness, and another 3,000 have become sick. The 15-year remediation effort is coming to an end and the EPA has announced it final plan for the remaining asbestos-contaminated soil and building materials.
Well, not quite nothing, but close. Where asbestos is known, it will be left undisturbed. If it is buried or in wall insulation, it will be left alone. And maybe they will leave notes, warning people not to dig. Forever.
There are still another few years of cleanup work for the structures that were covered with asbestos dust from the mine, and that work will continue, but for the rest, it will remain, in the walls and plaster and any other building material.
Let us hope 30 or 50 years from now, someone remembers there is asbestos in those walls.
And in that sense, Libby is like every other town in the U.S., with millions of locations containing asbestos, patiently waiting for someone to drill, or saw or tear and release the dust that carries the deadly, microscopic fibers that can cause mesothelioma.
In that sense, we all live in Libby.
Source: abcnews.com, “Cleanup of Superfund Town Would Leave Some Asbestos Behind,” Matthew Brown, Associated Press, April 5, 2015